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In the twentieth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Mark A. Noll, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. Noll opens by discussing which dimensions of his long and distinguished career afforded him with the deepest satisfaction, focusing on the friends he made and the students he served. He offers his insights concerning how he came to understand the Christian academic vocation and what individual and communal practices can enhance that understanding for younger scholars. Noll and Ream talk about the importance of gratitude for the opportunities one receives, what requests one should accept, and what requests one should decline. Noll then concludes by discussing how being invested in the life of the Church and the keeping of the sabbath not only enhance one’s sense of calling but foster a lifetime of service.
Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Our guest is Mark A. Noll, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. Thank you for joining us.
Mark Noll: Thank you, Todd, and thanks to Christian Scholar’s Review for using this forum for helping out Christian scholars of all kinds.
Todd Ream: At what point in time did you know you were called to the Christian academic vocation?
Mark Noll: That’s actually an interesting question, because I’m not sure that the category, Christian academic profession, entered my thinking, but I was more and more convinced that I should pursue some line of work that involved reading and words and eventually teaching, and do so with regard to historical topics. At the same time as my later undergraduate years and early graduate years was coming to greater clarity about my own Christian faith, own Christian convictions, and the two kind of grew up together, and I was pleased.
And let’s see, it would have been 1975, to realize that you could actually be paid to teach students and keep reading books and try to write books about subjects I was interested in, and to do so with Christian purposes as well.
So I would say that a vocation, and I use that word deliberately, a vocation as a historian who was a Christian, developed gradually, but early on, by the late 70s, I think I knew that that’s where I wanted to head.
Todd Ream: To whom would you give credit for that understanding and its development?
Mark Noll: Well, my parents were not academics, but they encouraged certain- my mother was a reader. They certainly encouraged good work in school. I grew up at Calvary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where again, not particularly academic, but very conservative, evangelical, but good people.
So Don Andersen, Dick Peters, Evelyn Svee as she was then, Evelyn Lykgaard as she became Bob Ask, a high school history teacher and a football- one of my football coaches, were all encouraging of the young people, not necessarily to do academic things, but to do whatever it took.
And then certainly as an undergraduate at Wheaton College, I enjoyed the studies per se, and I think I began to catch a little bit of the vision of teaching life, academic life could be from, from really inspiring teachers, Clyde Kilby, Bob Warburton. They’re English professors. I was an English major. Arthur Holmes, a wonderful year-long course in the history of philosophy that convinced me I wasn’t a philosopher, but I knew I was interested in the context in which philosophers did their work.
And then as that academic interest was growing, as I mentioned, I was also coming to an understanding of my need for Christian foundation and my personal sense of being a sinner who stood before others in God only by grace.
And so looking back on the religious experience I had, I sometimes am too critical, I think. But it was from reading books about the Protestant Reformation mostly, Roland Bainton on Martin Luther, A. G. Dickens on the English Reformation, that I’ve heard a clarifying Christian message that touched me existentially and also proved to be really interesting intellectually.
And then at the same time, or just a little bit later, I was reading Perry Miller on the American Puritans, Edmund Morgan on the Puritans, the American Revolutionary period, and these terrific historians and very stimulating authors certainly provided an impetus to go further, to see if I could try out to do something along the same line.
So influences of different kinds. Uh, soon after I got to graduate school, it started out in literature, but then eventually in the history of Christianity, there were soon personal encouragers and personal examples that we’ll probably mention as we go along this morning.
Todd Ream: If I may, can you tell me a little bit more about the transition you made from literature to history?
Mark Noll: Yes. When I was an English major at Wheaton, it was still fairly traditional in approaching literary studies by putting authors in the context of their times and, and doing not detailed history work, but historical situating.
By the time I got to the University of Iowa in the comparative literature department, kind of the new literary criticism was in vogue, where with many good results, the incurrent was to look at the text and focus on the way in which the language was being used. And what was being communicated by the text itself with the author kind of pushed to the, to the background. And that just didn’t, didn’t seem right. Or at least right for me, obviously.
Uh, and again, at the same time, the reading I’d been doing, the personal experiences I had had with respect to Christian faith, made me think that the way to see what Christianity could be was historical. And obviously, literary sources have remained very important. I think I’m probably more of an intellectual historian than social or, or historian from the bottom up just because of the background of being convinced that written texts are really important. But trying to see written and published texts against the background of the historical context in which they emerged, just seemed increasingly good.
So after I finished a master’s degree in comparative literature at the University of Iowa, mostly I think to explore the realities of Christian faith, I enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the master’s program of what was then called Church history. I think I would call it today the history of Christianity, and found the study really illuminating, a lot of fun, intellectually stimulating, but also spiritually gratifying.
And so, again, finishing a master’s degree there and then finding out you could, actually in my case, get part, part of your tuition as a graduate student paid for and keep studying these, things just seemed the right step to take. In those early days and later too, I think it’s really important to mention that my wife, Maggie, was willing to support me in various jobs she took, while I was a, what my parents worried about, being a perennial student.
But going on in the history of Christianity and then finding out that you could actually get a job teaching history was just a really great thing. So, yes, literature. I don’t think I’ve ever left behind, but I think literature writing in the, in the context in which it was done has been what I’ve emphasized.
Todd Ream: It’s very interesting. Thank you. Amongst all that you accomplished over the course of your service to the Church and to the academy, during what season did you experience the greatest satisfaction?
Mark Noll: I’m grateful that you sent me that question ahead of time, Todd, because I’ve looked back and, and my mind and heart is just filled with gratitude for the many different times when I felt real satisfaction.
I’m thinking early on when I was a very junior teacher at Trinity College in Deerfield, trying to teach courses in American history, introductory German, political science, a little creative writing on the side. Uh, one year, George Marsden came from Calvin College and was a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I’d made contact with David Wells, my primary teacher at Trinity Seminary, my years there, and for most of that year when George was in Deerfield, he and David allowed me to have coffee with them once a week.
And that, I look back, is now a kind of marvelous postdoc experience of two senior, very wise and accomplished Christian thinkers. Different in many ways also, by no means sharing the exact same convictions or exact same way in which they went about their work, but, but certainly united in- I guess this would be probably a time to talk about a Christian academic vocation- united in thinking that they were doing what they were called to do by God, to do various kinds of historical and historical theological works.
Certainly many years teaching at Wheaton College, I certainly enjoyed the teaching, the opportunities to engage in my own scholarship. I’m always grateful for Wheaton as a teaching institution, to make sure that faculty who felt called in that direction could have time and energy and a little bit of money at least to pursue their scholarship. So teaching and scholarship. We’re very pleased to take part in a church here that is still our church home, almost 50 years later.
And then, in ways that looking back, not exactly sure how that it came about, but also a great privilege to do things outside of normal academic duties with a whole range of Christian historians and historians who weren’t necessary believers but interested in Christian topics through the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton, the ISAE.
It came into existence because Wheaton was willing to have an institute. There was funding from the Lily Endowment and eventually the Pew Charitable Trust. There was eventually wonderful leadership of the ISAE by Joel Carpenter, Edith Blumhofer, Larry Eskridge, Darryl Hart, and a cohort of, not exactly, again, like-minded, but people looking at problems in the, in the, from the same direction.
So, my association with, with, at this level, really started at Trinity College, where the dean Ed Hakes at a time when Trinity really didn’t have any extra money, somehow got a little bit of funding to do a conference and we could invite Nathan Hatch and George Marsden to campus, Harry Stout, and think about, in that context, the Christian meaning of the American Revolution.
And then at Wheaton with the ISAE, to have the privilege of doing conferences that, very often, some of the same people, Hatch, Marsden, Stout, Grant Wacker, Edith Blumhofer eventually, friends from outside the United States, George Rawlyk from Canada David Livingstone from Northern Ireland, eventually Mark Hutchinson from Australia, while, while carrying on with the normal academic activities at Wheaton and teaching and trying to work on my own research projects. To have these extra things, made for a kind of a stressful over full life, but really, in a term you used, a very, very satisfying life as well.
During those same years, I was privileged to be introduced to the people who ran the Reformed Journal out of Grand Rapids. A lot of Calvin College people, a lot of William B. Eerdmans Publishing people, to start writing a little bit for the Reformed Journal. And then, I think, when I was invited to be on the editorial committee, I might’ve been the first person not in the Christian Reformed Church to do that. Really appreciated the support and bonhomie of Jon Pott, who was the editor of Eerdmans and the editor of the Reformed Journal.
And then Wheaton days is a similar thing. Real satisfaction working with John Wilson and, and, and the people of Christianity Today and Books and Culture. To have, in both those cases, the Reformed Journal and, and Books and Culture, the privilege of working on a publishing device that tried to fruitfully occupy that middle ground between academic writing and then popular writing, and to do so in a Christian frame of reference. Not, not always apologetics. Actually not often apologetics.
But trying in a kind of way that I guess I learned from Calvin College people and their debt to Abraham Kuyper. But other believers have learned it in other ways, to think that if you’re a Christian and interested in the world, interested in the life of the mind, there really is nothing that falls outside the scope of those interests. So that was hugely satisfying.
The privilege to, then, teach at Notre Dame was hugely satisfying. Wasn’t doing maybe quite as many things, but the things I was doing demanded more time, so keep going with scholarship and research on books that I’d been working on in many cases for decades. But then to have the privilege of being at a research university, which had obviously a different emphasis than a teaching college. To do so in a Catholic context in the post-Vatican II era when Protestants and Catholics were able to learn from each other, to have a remarkable group of PhD students who I would tell them you’re teaching me as much as I’m teaching you, they would laugh and not believe it. But it was true.
I’m afraid your question, which is simple and straightforward, got me thinking about how grateful I should be for, for a, an academic career that has involved real satisfaction in teaching, real satisfaction in my own research, real satisfaction in enterprises like the ISAE, like the Reformed Journal, like Books and Culture that spiced up life wonderfully.
And, and then also to be in a position of, I don’t know what, how I’d put it exactly, but feeling at home, writing academically for other academics and feeling at home as a Christian writing for Christian audiences too.
That’s way too long of an answer, but I want to record my debt to so many people who made these periods of satisfaction possible.
Todd Ream: Yeah, no, that’s beautiful. Thank you. No, my, my hope for all of us who take on this calling is that we take time to appreciate those who’ve helped us along the way and that that assistance also brings that sort of abiding satisfaction that such a profession can offer. And so, yeah, thank you very much for offering that.
How did you decide what projects to pursue? My guess is somewhere there over your shoulder may still be folders with ideas for projects some of which you may take up, some of which you may have decided to pass up. But how do you, how did you decide over those seasons of your career, which projects were to get attention and when?
Mark Noll: I think I was always able to have my own research interests as a kind of continual or baseline. So, starting out with a monographic, more detailed study of the College of New Jersey and the Revolution Era, Princeton in the time afterwards. And then thinking about larger questions of how theological commitments interacted with American social and political life, thinking about then that the Civil War is a time of theological involvement and a theological crisis. Then for, really a project that started with one of the ISAE meetings, 1979 more than 40 years interest in the place that the Bible has had in, in American culture.
So on one line, these are projects that interest me and I was committed to, but then for almost everything else, it was not so much choosing them, but people saying: well, how would you like to do this? Or could, could you do such and such?
I do remember the, the meeting where Nathan Hatch, more or less, coordinated discussion with someone from a funding agency, and in effect- this is making the story a little simpler than it actually was- but in effect said, well, Neal Plantinga, you need to write about how theologians are, should do things better. David Wells, you need to write about how evangelical life in the United States needs strengthening. Mark, you need to write about why evangelical people don’t do much academic life.
And we sort of saluted and said, yes, sir. Neal Plantinga did a wonderful book on what became of sin. And David Wells did five or six really powerful books on a critique of the kind of way of life of evangelicals. And I did The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and kept going and tried to do something positive, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. But none of that would have happened if Nathan hadn’t- and it wasn’t just him, George Marsden, George Rawlyk, Edith Blumhofer, eventually Grant Wacker, they said, we should, we should do this.
Then, the ISAE projects were all in their own way, stimulating some, some of them, things I knew a little bit about. We did a project on religion and American politics, a project on Jonathan Edwards, that I felt sort of an my areas of competence, but then projects on mission history, where Dana Robert and Daniel Bays and Grant Wacker took the lead. Project on higher education, where the late Kenneth Shipps and Joel Carpenter took the lead. Projects on economics life in the United States, where we were helped by the vice president for uh, the money matters at Wheaton College, David Johnson, and a whole raft of other people.
Uh, but these were projects I don’t think I necessarily chose to do, but the ISAE could make them happen. Science and, and uh, the Christian faith. So we were able to get really positive leadership from David Livingstone and, and Belfast. So those were things that you sort of asked to do, writing for Reformed Journal and Books and Culture.
Sometimes there were things I wanted to do if I thought were interesting. Other times the ideas that people came. So some combination of trying to have things I knew I wanted to work on and, and things that others thought it’d be a good idea to work on is probably what, what characterize what I’ve, what I’ve tried to do.
Looking back just, just because the things I’ve thought have been important, I’ve spent an awful lot of time on, have had pretty modest in the marketplace. Whereas the things that I often sometimes worked on in a real hurry and did because other people wanted them, like the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, do much better than I’d anticipated.
My friends at Baker Books in Grand Rapids were willing, at one time, to entertain the idea. Well, I said, I’ve been writing poems occasionally off and on. How would you like to do a book of my poems? And you can imagine they scratched their head, with a real burst of non-enthusiasm, said, well, maybe, but couldn’t you give us a book that people might actually read?
And I said, well, I had a few ideas from teaching the general history of Christianity. And then, through some experience that Wheaton College, people set up for teaching actually in Romania before the fall of the communist government. Well, how about the idea of a general history of Christianity based on turning points? Well, okay, that sounds good.
Well, what I wanted to have Baker do is this book of poems that ended up selling probably a few hundred copies, but then the book Turning Points, now with a fourth edition and a wonderful help from David Komline and Han-luen Komline, sold a lot of copies. And it took some work, but not nearly as much work as just figuring out what happened at Princeton, New Jersey from 1770 to 1790.
And there’s a few dozen people that are interested in that, but quite a few more maybe have benefited from a general history of Christianity.
Todd Ream: Thank you very much. Going back to one of the things that you mentioned early on in that, that thread there that, I’m gonna guess that even in those early meetings, you could see that one of your friends would eventually, given the instructions that he was offering to his colleagues, would go on to serve as a provost and then eventually as a president of major universities.
So that leadership ability was beginning to emerge at that time even.
Mark Noll: Right, and I think that the overarching thing carried away is how much in academic life, how much benefit came from people contributing their various skills to enterprises. Um, certainly Nathan Hatch became a distinguished college administrator, but then so did Joel Carpenter, which, which was also in both cases, I concluded a lot through detailed history work, but a tremendous gain for higher education, Christian higher education, Christian thinking about the life of the mind in the context of contemporary American society.
So it was in miniature, I think, an example of how in the Body of Christ, there are different gifts and different callings. And when they’re able to work together, you have a really positive situation. My hope, and it’s getting a little bit ahead of us here, but my analysis of current academic and Church institutional, educational life today is that there really are a tremendous number of good things happening, but not as much cooperation in the Body of Christ as, as would be good for whoever: academics, the general public, pastors, educators, and the like.
Todd Ream: Yeah, I would. I would agree. If I may, let’s turn our attention to how you understand the Christian academic vocation. Are there any commitments in your estimation that would define it, maybe for you individually, but also perhaps, you know, for groups of scholars too that take on that calling?
Mark Noll: Yes, my own sense is Reformed in a traditional way. Uh, I mentioned being influenced some directly by Abraham Kuyper, more by people who are genuine Kuyperians, who were able to articulate a way in which the Christian faith, in fairly traditional evangelical terms, poses an antithesis between what the Church does and what the world does. But also, a Christian faith teaches the general mercy and grace and empowering of God for the world as a whole, which means that life in the world, generally, should be understood as an arena given by God, that people with God-given abilities can take advantage of.
So, I thought actually for a long time, this would have come early on, that academic life for a Christian should emphasize depth and clarity and dedication to whatever the academic task is, for its own sake. Meaning, because God made it possible for humans to know the world, God made it possible for the world to exist, God made it possible for physicists, teachers of foreign language, sociologists, chemists, historians to understand something potentially truthful about the world that God made. And so that is a really dignified calling.
At the same token, a Christian believer should see that the calling to study, and again, biology, sociology, foreign language, music, the calling to do that kind of study is a real gift of God for which praise can be offered to the creator and sustainer of the world.
And again, with the image of the Body of Christ, serious Christian commitment can co-exist, not as two parts of a sandwich, but as one integrated whole in enjoying the task. This would be for people outside of the academy as well, but enjoying the calling for itself and for Christian purposes.
So my, my sense of the Christian academic vocation combines real seriousness about what people are studying, a desire to learn from whoever else is studying them, and a real serious commitment to the task as a gift of God that’s able to support what comes from the Church and its teaching, what comes from study of Scripture and its teaching. So not either Christ or the academy, but, but the two of them together.
After The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published, and then actually, in some ways, almost to this day, I would hear from people who would say, I’m such and such in the university. When I’m at work at the university, I don’t let, try not to let people know that I’m active in my local church.
When I’m active in my local church, I have to be really careful about telling people that I’m a, whatever, lawyer, law teacher, economist, sociologists, what can I do? And my encouragement was only to say those parts of your life for, for good reason, for understandable reasons might seem antagonistic, but for a believer, there just isn’t any reason fundamentally, why those parts of your life should seem antagonistic.
And then, thankfully, in most cases, I could point the inquirer, to the person who made contact, to believers who were modeling what it meant to be serious in their fields and serious believers at the same time. And then I think over the decades, there’s just more and more examples of that kind of positive synergy between serious academic commitment and serious faith commitment.
Todd Ream: Thank you. I want to ask you a little bit about experiences that can allow for the formation of such a sense of commitment, then, in vocation.
Um, you mentioned, you know, just a few seconds ago, mentoring relationships, perhaps that, you know, you were able to introduce someone working in an academic field who didn’t do so necessarily out of their faith context for various reasons, but you connected them with someone who did. You mentioned your impromptu postdoc there when you first started teaching with David Wells and George Marsden.
Are there experiences in your estimation that allow for the formation of these kinds of commitments in addition to maybe the ones that I just mentioned and that we’ve talked about?
Mark Noll: Yes, there are. And I think in almost every case, they have to do with positive personal encouragement that somehow factors into serious teaching, serious institutional involvement, and serious scholarship.
One of the things that makes me so grateful for the privilege of taking part in the ISAE is how much encouragement came when we had the funding and Wheaton’s support and the capacity to work on a project.
So I’m thinking, for example, of Edith Blumhofer’s work over many decades on Christian hymnody. I was able to assist Edith in the proposal, I think from the Lilly Endowment, where we actually had funding to bring to Wheaton, I don’t know, maybe 50 people, who were doing serious research, historical things with, with hymns. Some of these folks I knew. Many, many of them I hadn’t. It just proved really satisfying for us as coordinators.
But I think in many cases, even more satisfying for someone working, could have been in a Christian institution, could have been in a pluralistic institution, could have been as an independent scholar, to come together and to say something like, well, you know Isaac Watts was a stimulus for an inspiration for Charles Wesley. And there’s ten people in the room who say, I know, I know, and then they could, they could, they could go on.
Very often in conferences like this, you had people who were not necessarily slogging away, but working away in a kind of an ordinary, semi-isolated way, and isolated because the academic world it’s just become so detailed, so nobody’s a historian. Nobody’s a historian of America. No one’s a historian of the 18th century, but you’re a historian of economic, political connections in the second half of the 18th century in Detroit. That becomes your specialty.
But to have individuals who knew what you were studying, appreciated it, I think it was tremendously encouraging. I think of the way in which C. S. Lewis described one of the loves, I forget what it was in The Four Loves, but you know, you have a real friendship that inspires and encourages, when you look together, not at each other, but at the same thing, and you recognize there’s someone else who you, too, are interested in that. So, that was, that was a great encouragement.
I think that in particularly the privilege of working with John Wilson at Books and Culture, John sought out younger people, sometimes advantageously situated, sometimes all by themselves, and would give them assignments to write essays on, on books or in some cases movies, which I wasn’t all that keen on. But he showed how you could have really interesting essays on movies and very often be done by people, younger people who needed that kind of encouragement.
And then the process of supervising many MA theses I did at Wheaton and then fewer but still a significant number of PhD dissertations at Notre Dame, you could see, with at least many people, that an older person’s interest in what they had found to be important, but perhaps no one else see to be important, just could be a great help.
And so I was nervous at Wheaton, but even more nervous at Notre Dame about the employability of people who did history master’s degrees and then PhD, history PhDs. And that was always a kind of a dark cloud in the horizon. But the process of working fruitfully with people, telling them, you know, you’re really teaching me things, and meaning it, could be really encouraging.
So, somehow a personal contact, which I think many of the Christian colleges now, administrators realize that you can be a real help, so seminars of different kind, opportunities that are provided for faculty to get together on more than just the nuts and bolts of running the institution, but actually having substantive discussions on their fields, the way their fields interact, the way their interaction, the fields relates to the Christian faith.
These are all, I think, experiences that breathe life into Christian academic vocations.
Todd Ream: Are there temptations in today’s academy that often hinder the formation of those commitments? I mean, one of them you’ve talked about is the increasing rate of specialization, to carve out a niche. Um, so that it may be hard then for someone to find someone with whom to talk.
Are there temptations that you would point to and say that even if they come for some good reasons, we may need to be wary about them and address them?
Mark Noll: Temptations for Christian academics are mostly the kind of temptations that all believers face. The temptation to think that you’re more important than other people, the temptation to be happy when somebody who’s doing some of the same thing has a problem. The temptation to be so busy that you don’t have time to listen. These are not academic temptations exclusively.
But yes, I think a modern academic life has the virtues of specialization. But then as you indicate, the virtues can become a vice. If you really are dedicated and have done good work on a very narrow topic and there’s just no one around that knows anything about what you’re doing, that can be extremely disillusioning.
I do think, and this is beating a drum that many others have been beating at the last 15 and 20 years, we’ve seen a politicization of many academic things that have just been really terrible. Because in the academic ideal, we know that growth comes from patient listening to people with whom we disagree and then low caloric discussion back and forth. So as soon as shouting starts or as soon as labeling takes the place of careful discrimination, we have a problem.
We’re speaking now in early 2024 and we’ve seen over the last months, university presidents resign for not saying the right things in the right way about the Israel-Hamas struggle. We, we’ve seen, political positions hurting people, holding jobs, getting jobs. And it’s never, of course, it’s not the case that partisanship and politics were absent in the history of American higher education, but I think there’s a special danger now.
And I actually think for some Christian scholars, there’s a real temptation just to be too busy. And here I’m probably in a confessional mode here now because the great thing is, the great thing in so many of our Christian institutions is to have multiple valuable things to do. Really work hard at your teaching. Really work hard at your mentoring. Really work hard at your scholarship. Really do the right thing in your local church. Always keep in mind your family, if you have a family, and your kids at different stages of their lives.
And you begin to add up maybe 80 or 90 hours of responsibility when you have 40 or 50 or 60 hours to get things done. And somehow, I think this is hard, particularly for evangelical people, and I’m using the term in its older religious sense. It’s hard for evangelical people to say no and not feel guilty that they’re, they’re somehow missing out doing things that the Lord wants them to do.
But I came to the conviction and took a long time and my wife might say I’m still not there yet, but being able to say no with a clear conscience, I think is a really important Christian virtue that at least some very busy people should cultivate.
Todd Ream: I think that’s very important advice. When you mentioned that you were about to go into confessional mode along these lines, I thought the confessional is crowded there. You’re not alone in that space because I think that yeah, that that plagues a number of our colleagues, in terms of how they orient themselves.
You mentioned the vices and then virtues. I want to ask in particular if there are virtues, whether they be intellectual, moral, and or theological that prove, in your estimation, most critical to the exercise of the Christian academic vocation. And maybe there are seasons in which some virtues are more critical, given the debates or the discussions or the projects.
Mark Noll: I do think that what things I’ve mentioned before that always realizing that academic work, like Church work, like social involvement, is a personal, as well as, an intellectual matter. And keeping other people in mind when you’re dedicated to your own task, always treating others as helpers instead of just servants.
I think it was Nathan Hatch or maybe some other administrator with a whole lot of experience once told me, I can tell a lot about a potential hire by how the person treats the departmental secretaries, the departmental staff. And that resonated with me because I was, I’ve been aware for a very long time. I mean, back to the first teaching positions at Trinity College, when there wasn’t hardly any money. And people were very stressed that you just couldn’t do your work as an academic without the support staff. And, and not to realize that your- the fundraisers and the secretaries and the student assistants were people too, it’s just, just wrong.
Another virtue I think I alluded to already is the confidence that academic work, like all other legitimate callings, it can be a God-honoring enterprise. And it’s not as though academic work should be done as an instrumental end to evangelization, although it’s always good when there’s an evangelistic outcome. It’s not- it shouldn’t be a way to simply earn money or have a position, but it’s a calling. And realizing that your work can be a calling, I think it is a Christian virtue.
And then certainly academics maybe are more prone to the vice of thinking of themselves more highly than they ought to think. But the virtue certainly is that when you do accomplish something that is valuable and others see it as valuable, you realize how many others have contributed. How in the broader scope of things, the eternal scope of things, things we do have only a modest, very modest importance. And having the kind of humility that doesn’t say I’m humble, look how proud I am of my humility, but having, having a humble approach to what we do in academic life, as well as, all other spheres of life, is a really positive virtue as well.
Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. I’m going to need to set aside the work I was doing this morning on that essay touting my humility then, and get on with other projects in that regard.
I want to ask now, if I could, at what level In terms of the cultivation of these virtues are individual scholars responsible as well as then are the institutions where they serve responsible?
You know, where, where does that fall in terms of, you know, what we should take on on our own versus how we should create institutional cultures and that offer practices that cultivate these virtues?
Mark Noll: That certainly is an awfully pressing, pertinent question. Maybe a little bit more germane for college administrators, fundraisers, but important for everybody. Fruitful and God-honoring academic life, I think, begins with personal commitment, but personal commitment is always in the context of needing help.
I do think administrators today are really stressed at meeting budgets, particularly administrators who realize how important the humanities are, how important it is to have undergraduates and graduate students learn abilities and not just money-making capacities. And I think it is also always helpful for people in the trenches of academics to understand what kind of institution you are.
It really was a real privilege for me to teach at Trinity College and Wheaton and Notre Dame, three, many ways, quite different institutions. Uh, but to realize that each one had its own integrity, each one had a set of goals that were preeminent, other goals that were secondary. And to realize that where you are should at least influence to some degree how you think of yourself as contributing to the institution.
So at Wheaton, again, I think as I’ve mentioned, I was really pleased that the institution primarily to be teaching at undergraduates, had a space for scholarship. At Notre Dame, I was always encouraged that, although the bar for scholarship was raised very high, it was clearly communicated to departments that nobody who couldn’t hold their own in the classroom wasn’t going to be there for very long and promoted.
So to see where you were and what kind of institution, some institutions have funding for academic cooperation. Some simply don’t. Trying to make the best of what you have with what you have, it’s good advice for everyone, but hard to take; advice is hard to follow.
Todd Ream: A question I want to ask now is what is your assessment of the present health of the academic vocation, and in particular, the Christian academic vocation?
Mark Noll: I do think that in many scholarly fields, the Christian involvement is very strong. So I’m thinking, for example, of legal scholars and John Witte at Emory, David Skeel at the University of Pennsylvania, and others at different institutions.
The program that John Witte has organized on Christianity and the law, which didn’t exist 40 years ago. I think of the programs that the Veritas Forum runs with a whole roster of important, serious scholars doing really good work. The institutions that now exist at many colleges and universities where there’s a Christian study center, many places, like the Washington University in St. Louis, it has an active and quite visible Christian faculty fellowship.
I think of the positive contribution that today, in a way that was not the case 50 years ago, Catholic and Protestant scholars benefit from each other’s work. So in many ways, I think the academic life for Christian terms is very strong.
A difficulty, it seems to me and it’s a serious difficulty, is that this sphere of Christian academic involvement often seems quite disconnected from the larger currents that are, that receive a lot of media attention, that fill up the social media ether, and that, that is a problem.
But, but the, the positive is just a lot of really strong work in many academic fields include theology and Biblical studies as well. So a mixed bag. Good in what is being done. Not so helpful, not what it could be in a broader place in contemporary culture.
Todd Ream: What would you view as the greatest possibilities or opportunities for enhancing the health of the Christian academic vocation?
Mark Noll: Combinations probably of, of commitment, mentorship, learning, administrative wisdom, money, obviously important.
I feel privileged to have benefited from different kinds of positive administrative support at all the places I’ve taught. They have been very different in their own ways, but also quite fortunate never to have had really serious administrative responsibilities myself.
I’m a little reluctant to speak about what they should do when I’ve been the beneficiary of so much good support in so many different ways.
Todd Ream: I’ve often said that actually if you have two faculty members together exercising their opinions about administrative efforts, you’ve got at least four opinions there. So I think our administrators and friends who are listening will greatly appreciate that, that restraint then, in terms of what they may face on their own campuses.
In what ways did that sense of the Christian academic vocation change, if at all, over the course of your career?
Mark Noll: That’s a really interesting question. The answer probably depends on what part of the Christian world, what part of the academic world you were in.
Certainly, when I was an undergraduate at Wheaton, we had some terrific teachers, and people who were really, really expert in what they knew. But the sense that publishing for your academic peers might be a really positive thing for Christian scholars to do, it was not uppermost. There was some that happened.
Now, a privilege not too long ago to just do a glance through the records of Wheaton faculty and again, the institution has not changed its major goals of being a strong undergraduate institution, but a really solid percentage now are publishing for their peers. And often, importantly, not always, and certainly doesn’t have to be always, but often, with work showing the Christian implications or effects of their particular scholarly domains. So that to me is an improvement.
I do think that the pressure on particularly undergraduates, but also graduate students to have employable skills for the first job has become ever stronger. It’s entirely understandable, particularly given the economic situations to which we’ve gone through, but needs to be held in check by the academic purpose, undergraduate especially, but also graduate, to prepare people for a life of thinking, commitment, engagement, discussion, contribution, as thinkers, Christians, and citizens, as well as just economic machines.
And I suppose we should mention social media too, but since I don’t do too much social media, I’m not, by no means, an expert, but from, from every, everything that you hear and see the last 20, 25 years of accessibility to a social media sphere has certainly complicated academic life.
Todd Ream: As you look back over that time period of your career, are there efforts, seasons, in which you think the Christian academic vocation came closer or closest to fulfilling its promise? Are there any notable examples that maybe you would want to mention?
Mark Noll: Yes, probably my view of history is such that the good times are always going to be attended by the bad times. The bad times always have some good, good to them.
But, but clearly, watching the, the recognition that George Marsden’s career gained with publication in 2004, 2005. It’s a major biography of Jonathan Edwards. Given the Grawemeyer Prize for a significant work in religion and then the prize given in American history to the most significant book of the year, I think it was a memorable moment because it showed a faithful Christian scholar not doing his work for academic purposes, nonetheless, did the work of such quality that could be recognized as it were in house among believers but also in the academy as a whole.
I certainly am encouraged with my own interest in the world history of Christianity with the recognition that Dana Robert at Boston University has gained as a prolific guide of doctoral students but also for her own research on the new dimensions of Christianity around the world.
In the same category, would be the work that Joel Carpenter has done after leaving- after being provost at Calvin, and many different dimensions of helping non-Western Christian academics have access to some of the resources that we in the West have found so valuable.
I mentioned the legal Christian enterprises, and I’m just standing in awe at the work of someone like John Witte and many, many associates in bringing first order religious questions into the perception of legal scholars.
And there are, I think, many others that one could note, but always alongside of, to be realistic, always alongside of problems that continue and downturns that take place, as well as significant achievements.
Todd Ream: Thank you. For young persons who are exploring a calling to the Christian academic vocation, what questions would you encourage them to pursue?
Mark Noll: Especially in a day where there’s so much pressures on academic life, including academic appointments, at least in the humanities and some other fields just having the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves is awfully important. I think the jobs were not readily available when I was finishing graduate school, but it just didn’t seem to be the pressure to, that you had to strategize and had to think ahead.
It certainly became customary at Notre Dame for all people who had PhD students to just tell people right from the start, your training will make you a better thinker, a better researcher, a better writer. It may not- despite what you do- it may not yield a position in academic life as has been, has been customary. So, realism.
But I think for particularly young Christian scholars, sensing that the life in the academy can be a vocation in Christian terms, the calling, means that people should give it everything they have, while keeping their eyes open for what they may need to do to earn a living. But not, not to be nervous about any weakness in the, in the vocational choice, choice itself.
So that confidence, along with trying to find personal connections that are encouraging, remains very important.
Todd Ream: Are there particular opportunities that you would encourage them to pursue or explore?
Mark Noll: Younger scholars who have the chance to take part in programs like Valparaiso University has undertaken for many years and its fellowships for younger scholars are terrific. I know there are some colleges and universities themselves that have special classes for incoming faculty.
I think probably the general advice would be, yes, keep going on what your specialty is. Don’t let that energy flag, but try as much as possible to see what other opportunities are available. And in the negotiating process of keeping at what you’re called to do primarily and enabling yourselves to take advantage of other things, just try to seek a balance.
Balance is such a good ideal and such a difficult ideal to reach, but balance for younger people, mid-career people, older people, retired people, I think is always a positive goal.
Todd Ream: What mistakes then would perhaps you encourage them to try to avoid making?
Mark Noll: Narrow focus on one thing. Not being willing to say no if you’re already doing too many things and has to do another thing. Ignoring the character of your own institution and what can be possible. There’s no point in longing to be somewhere else if you’re missing the opportunities to help out where you are.
And then simply, I think, avoiding the mistake of being inert to an environment and somehow thinking that the problems you have are unique or the problems you have are unsolvable.
And then I would, I would think a mistake to avoid, a really important mistake to avoid would be working so hard at your academic life that your, your, your family suffers, your church involvement is, is, undercut. Christian academic life needs, I think, to be very strong in commitments to academics, but needs also to be continually Christian as well.
Todd Ream: Thank you. I want to turn our attention in our last segment here together, to the relationship that Church-related higher education shares with the Church. And I want to start by asking you in what ways is the health of Church-related higher education dependent upon the health of the Church?
Mark Noll: Yes, I think a great deal of synergy is involved. There won’t be solid Christian colleges and universities if they’re not students who have been prepared for such work by their local churches. And I don’t, I don’t think there’ll be strong local churches if they ignore what academic Christians have to offer them.
It’s not as though the churches should be run by academics. It’s not as though the colleges should think of themselves entirely as churches. But clearly in the body of Christ, there are different callings. And in an ideal Christian world, the different callings realize the support they need from the other.
I do think in the contemporary American situation, when church life is dominated by partisanship, partisan political commitments, then church life suffers in general. And that suffering is communicated to the Christian colleges and universities as well.
But again, ideally, there should be support back and forth, and that I think is probably one of the great challenges of the present and the immediate future, to see more sense of cooperation, compatibility from the church sphere of the churches and the sphere of the educational institutions.
Todd Ream: In what ways, then, from your perspective as a historian but over the course of your career, has the relationship between the Church and Church-related higher education changed, if at all?
Mark Noll: And I’m not sure I’m competent to speak of that just because, way, way back in my adult life, my wife and I decided that I would not take invitations, Sunday invitations, to go talk at other churches. So, I know what our church has been like and not as much about the ecclesiastical landscape, even close to hand.
But I think in our experience, I’ve been really grateful for pastors, associate pastors, administrators in the church who have welcomed teachers at, from, from Wheaton, the College of DuPage, the University of Notre Dame, but not tried to orient their own ministry to them.
So I think we’ve just been privileged to have pastors who are wonderful people and serious in their commitment to the Scriptures and not ignoring or putting down the teachers in the crowd, but realizing that the Church is for everybody.
And somehow a positive Church-academy relationship is going to take for granted the strengths that each bring to the other, but not focus on them because the purpose of academic life is not the same as the purpose of church life. And the purpose of church life is not the same as academic life. So again, cooperation, balance, mutuality, these I think are the key matters.
Todd Ream: As we prepare to close our conversation together, what advice would you offer Christian scholars concerning how they can be of greater service to both the Church but then also the academy?
Mark Noll: I think I would say self-consciousness about the tremendous privilege it is to have employment, trying to train younger people, employment that allows for some time for research, some time for writing.
An attitude of gratitude for the possibilities, probably is a good place to start than whatever structural goals or programs you have in mind. And those will be tremendously different.
But just thankfulness for having it in the modern world and having in the American educational universe, opportunities to be an academic and to do so as a believer.
Todd Ream: Are there any commitments that you would encourage them to consider or commitments that you would caution them about?
I mean, one of the things that you talked about was you and your own wife had to decide that Sunday morning, commitments, despite, you know, the intense sense of calling that the two of you had for the church, but Sunday morning commitments and requests were not going to be ones that you were going to accept.
Are there things along those lines that you would encourage younger scholars to think about where they can contribute, but where they also need to be cautious too, in terms of maintaining a sense of balance in relation to other opportunities?
Mark Noll: Well, I certainly found, and this is not going to be true for everyone, that being a fairly strict Sabbatarian. I mean, taking walks on Sunday and watching a football game on Sunday and trying to connect with relatives on Sunday. And just not doing academic work and not even, gosh, checking email on Sunday.
Of course, we didn’t have email back in the day when we started this, but it was a real good commitment because it meant then that hard work and a lot of work during the six day week would be balanced by a day in which reflection on, on the the gift of time, the gift of family, the gift of Church, the gift of rest could be important.
Commitments not to avoid, I think will really be different for, for different people and, and will depend a lot on the kind of academic establishment. But certainly being over committed to just one thing, whether that be the classroom or your own research or trying to help out run the institution from committees.
Just again, balance will be a key and avoiding the imbalance of emphasizing any one thing at the expense of others.
Todd Ream: That’s wise advice, and on which we can close our time together today. Thank you very much.
Our guest has been Mark A. Noll, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us. It’s greatly appreciated.
Mark Noll: Thank you, Todd.
Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.